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Chicago, get a Malaysian restaurant already

Written by
Brenda Mak

It's been a year and a half since I moved to Chicago from Malaysia, and it hasn't been easy getting my Malaysian food fix...probably because there are no Malaysian restaurants in the city. The closest spot I’ve found, Penang Malaysian Cuisine, is in Arlington Heights—an hour-and-a-half train and bus ride away. I've become so desperate I've turned to Skype for cooking sessions with Mum.

Chicagoans are really missing out. Malaysian food is incredibly diverse: It’s influenced by various cultures, mainly Malay, Chinese and Indian, and derives from different styles of cooking. Some say it has similarities to Thai food and Indonesian dishes, but the numerous herbs, leaves and spices, along with typical ingredients like coconut milk, chili and shrimp paste, combine for a distinctive taste that can be really, really spicy.

Here’s where I go when I want a taste of my home country.

The real deal:
Penang Malaysian Cuisine (1720 W Algonquin Rd, Arlington Heights)

This is the only place to find the most authentic Malaysian dishes in the state. The restaurant is owned and run by Malaysians, and Penang, a state in Malaysia, is a food haven among locals. Exploring the menu here may be overwhelming, especially if it’s your first time, so here are my recommendations:

Start with the roti canai (buttered flat bread) and satay (chicken or beef skewers served alongside peanut sauce.) Then move on to the mains—for rice, try the nasi lemak (coconut rice) with beef or chicken rendang (coconut milk slowly simmered with spices), and the Hainanese chicken rice, which is also my comfort food. 

For noodles, get the asam laksa (noodles in spicy-sour fish broth with a hint of sweetness), curry laksa (vermicelli and yellow noodles drenched in thick, spicy, coconut milk–based broth), char kuey teow (flat noodles fried with pork lard, prawn and egg) or wan ton mee (thin egg noodles with barbecue pork and dumplings).

For desserts, we sure love our shaved ice. Order the cendol, topped with palm sugar and coconut milk, and ice kacang, topped with multiple syrups, condensed milk, sweet corn, grass jelly and red beans.

If that sounds like a lot, just round up a group of friends to get a taste of everything!

Asian Noodle House (844 N Roselle Rd, Hoffman Estates)
Noodles are what it's known for, and there’s a secret Malaysian menu you can ask for. Hearty bowls you should dive into are char kuay teow, kuay teow soup and curry laksa. It serves bak kut teh, pork ribs and mushroom herbal soup, on weekends, too. 

Similarities found in Chicago:

I’m surprised to say chain restaurant Flat Top Grill gets pretty close to a version of roti canai. It’s not an item specified on the menu; before handing your bowl to the chef, add the blue stick for an order of bread and voila—a buttered flat bread will come with it.

Rickshaw Republic (2312 N Lincoln Ave)
The restaurant is known for its Indonesian food, but some dishes resemble Malaysian delicacies. Sambal, a sweet-spicy chili paste, is a popular ingredient here. Try martabak (pan-fried bread stuffed with minced meat and onions), nasi lemak with beef rendang, nasi kuning (yellow rice), which pairs well with the gulai ayam (curry chicken), soto ayam, (clear chicken noodle soup) and mie goreng (fried noodles.) End the hearty meal with sweet cold cendol, green starch jelly and red beans piled with shaved ice coated in palm sugar and coconut milk.

The dishes mentioned above are only part of what Malaysian cuisine has to offer, and our best-tasting dishes definitely lie at home. Malaysia is 9,190 miles away from Chicago, but worth the trip.

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